July 1, 2022 Deep-Sea Mining Could Help the Clean Energy Transition. But Is It Worth the Risk?

The 228-meter long Hidden Gem docked in the Port of Rotterdam. Credit: Charles M. Vella/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
The Hidden Gem, a former drilling ship, docks in Rotterdam, Netherlands, to be converted into the American Bureau of Shipping's first sub-sea mining vessel. Credit: Charles M. Vella/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Three Pacific island nations announced this week that they had formed a new alliance calling for a moratorium on deep-sea mining until the environmental risks of the nascent industry are better understood and appropriate regulations are put in place. Whether countries should be allowed to extract minerals from the seafloor has become an increasingly important debate as countries race to find the metals needed for batteries that will power the clean energy transition.

Government mandates to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the growing popularity of electric vehicles have driven a figurative gold rush in recent years for lithium, cobalt, nickel and other relatively rare metals used to manufacture long-performance batteries. In fact, demand for those minerals could increase sixfold by 2040, according to projections from the International Energy Agency.

Hoping to cash in on the burgeoning market, several countries and private prospectors are now racing to find new sources of the materials, including at the bottom of the ocean. The United Nations body charged with regulating deep-sea mining in international waters is expected to ratify rules for the industry as early as next year, and nations have already issued dozens of licenses to companies to explore potential mining spots.

But a growing chorus of world leaders and scientists, particularly from island nations that depend on the ocean for food and income, say that the ecological threats from deep-sea mining are too great and are urging the international community to slow down.

“We know that deep-sea mining compromises the integrity of our ocean habitat that supports marine biodiversity and contributes to mitigating the impacts of climate change,” Palau President Surangel Whipps said at the United Nations Ocean Conference, which began on Monday and is being hosted in Portugal. “We believe it is not worth the risk.”

Palau was joined by Fiji and Samoa in the new alliance. A separate petition, also calling for a temporary ban on deep-sea mining, was circulated at the conference and has so far been signed by more than 70 individuals from 35 countries. And more than 600 scientists and policy experts from around the world have made a similar declaration, warning that mining the seabed could result “in the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem functioning that would be irreversible on multi-generational timescales.”

While the processes for deep-sea mining are still being developed, the leading idea involves using specialized vehicles to rake the ocean floor for potato-sized nodules that contain metal ores, which then get sucked up by a vacuum onto a ship. And although research on deep-sea mining is scarce—largely due to the cost and risk associated with conducting studies thousands of meters below the surface of the ocean—scientists say the evidence gathered so far is alarming.

Specifically, most researchers point to a test conducted in 1989 by German scientist Hjalmar Thiel, who dragged an 8-meter-wide rake across the ocean floor and observed the results. Sediment stirred up by the plowing buried almost everything, including the animals and plants living on the seabed, within nearly 7 square miles—far further than researchers at the time had imagined. And 26 years later, when scientists revisited the test site, the creatures that had once inhabited the area still hadn’t returned.

Scientists also warn that deep-sea mining could kill microbes that help absorb carbon dioxide, increasing global warming, and that the noise from the machinery could impair animals that use sound to avoid predators or find prey.

Deep-sea mining isn’t the only solution being explored. As my colleague Dan Gearino reported earlier this year, there’s a burgeoning battery recycling industry that aims to salvage rare materials from old waste rather than buying virgin metals.

Still, some countries—such as the small island nation of Nauru, just north of Australia—are pushing for an acceleration of the ocean mining business. And top energy experts have said that failing to quickly address the skyrocketing demand for rare minerals could jeopardize global climate goals. Complicating matters further is the fact that many of the metals needed for batteries are coming from only a handful of countries, with just three accounting for more than 75 percent of the total supplies, according to a 2021 IEA report.

In 2019, some 70 percent of cobalt and rare earth elements came from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and 60 percent came from China, that report found. And Australia was responsible for more than half the world’s supply of lithium.

“Today, the data shows a looming mismatch between the world’s strengthened climate ambitions and the availability of critical minerals that are essential to realizing those ambitions,” Fatih Birol, executive director of the IEA, said in a press release for the report. “Left unaddressed, these potential vulnerabilities could make global progress towards a clean energy future slower and more costly—and therefore hamper international efforts to tackle climate change.”

That’s it this week for Today’s Climate. The newsletter will take a break next Tuesday in observance of Independence Day, but I’ll be back in your inbox next Friday.

Today’s Indicator

3 billion

That’s about how many metric tons of carbon dioxide scientists believe the ocean absorbs every year, based on a 2020 study out of the United Kingdom that found the previous estimate of 2 billion metric tons was likely falling short.